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Dovetail Restorations: The role of furniture repair and lifecycle extension in creating a circular economy.

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Tracey Creed

Published June 12 2021

I came across Dovetail Restorations in search of someone who could repair the veneer on my Circa: 1960s Danske Mobler Viking dining table. The surface has suffered extensive damage, though I cannot part with it. The countless house dinners this table has bared witness. I remember the day I bought this table. And over the past four years, I managed to acquire numerous mid-century pieces. Ercol, Lane the G Plan Astro table [patience was required, you rarely see these models in the secondhand market], a Don sofa, armchairs and other tables of no known maker.

One of the beautiful things about secondhand is that it transcends brand. It’s more about curating, expressing identity, and that goes beyond labels. And these pieces are collected today — that’s how I like to look at purchases. Once you have educated people to expect furniture to cost so little, it is super difficult to go back. $3,000 sofas seem highly aspirational. So, I think the major appeal for secondhand is access to quality, compared to what you could get for your dollar in the primary market. But it is all relative, personal circumstances, and once you detach from trends, your source of view, you can do better than shopping at large department stores.

Considering all the objects, the things that would come into my life required thinking in terms of lifetime ownership [or at least long term]. That was when I realised that in taking this approach, I could afford to own these higher price point pieces by doing that. When I did not know any better, I purchased replications. They are disappointing. To reduce consumption and waste of resources, we must create more lasting relationships between ourselves and the products we buy. We must care for what we own, and that only comes with emotion since wasteful patterns of consumption and waste are driven, in large part, by emotional and experiential factors. And this is why I cannot part with my Viking table.

I visited Dovetail Restorations to speak with founder Avi Koifman who opened the workshop back in 2008 and who manages the workshop alongside his son Adam and Adam's partner Cinthya, who is a design consultant. Collectively they work alongside a team of craftspeople, from carpenters and upholsterers utilising practices that seek to minimise impact. And there is very much this sense of responsibility within the work itself. The workshop takes a holistic approach to create a sustainable circular economy for furniture and objects by providing an opportunity to extend the life cycle. And it's almost poetic—how restoration offers a glimpse into the connection of the past and present.

We discussed shifting attitudes towards sustainability, a general distaste for furniture produced en masse, and the Pandemic's significance in evaluating our relationship to consumerism and home. For those seeking to reinvigorate a space, consider updating the upholstery and not the sofa.

Avi's background isn't what you think it is. Informed by his ecologically-focussed high school education and a later experience in a conflict zone where he witnessed the very nature of destruction—how destructive people can be, the ecological and societal impacts which informed his views on ‘sympathetic’ restoration. For Avi, restoration is in part, an act of wellness. A sort of inner reflection, paying homage to a previous time period by rejecting the concept of constant newness and instead acknowledging the respect said generation had for craft and well-made pieces.

Demolition timber’s decline and the arrival of fast furniture

When Avi arrived in New Zealand, he was at first an antique trader—his entry point to restoration and then by the 80s, eventually launched his manufacturing studio in addition to resale. It was at the time [the late 80s to early 90s] where local industry was thriving, sustained by demolition timber, recounts Avi. It would not last. Auckland was going through a tremendous transformation — this timber, kauri beams removed from older buildings on Queen Street, demolished to make space for larger office buildings during the second half of the 20th century. “We made a business out of selling kauri bookshelves.” This was prior to trade laws that allowed for the importation of foreign goods, notably the kind destined for entry-level department stores. Tastes changed. “Public perception had shifted, people were really price-driven,'' recalls Avi. “And so in 2008 I ceased manufacturing to focus on restoration.”

Make do and mend

Repairing existing furniture seeks to avoid unnecessary pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and energy otherwise exerted in a product's life cycle — minimising the extraction and use of finite resources. And it is, of course, reducing the amount of landfill and incineration waste. "Refurbishing and restoration as a concept are not new. You think, two, three thousand years ago in Israel, discovering a mosque converted to a church was not unusual. Culturally it was the norm," states Avi. So it was about energy and cost. We say cost because we live in a monetary society." Avi further explains.

At some point, and the reality remains that in strictly monetary terms, it has since become of less cost to replace. More than of the moment, Avi says the time-tested quality of vintage pieces implies value and durability. These two qualities are attractive to people tired of what he considers disposable design. "What we are seeing is an active intent to fix than replace," notes Avi.

Asking after notable client projects, there is the story of a Danish, original mid-century sideboard that had met with unfortunate circumstances, dropped during relocation, the sideboard had significant damage. "It was in pieces," states Adam. "The owner's parents had emigrated from Denmark, this was an heirloom piece. The situation was extremely emotional. Finally, it was repaired. The owner cried," adds Adam. "We classify our work as sympathetic restoration," explains Avi. "Repurposing a table to be shorter, for example, restoration is done in a way that enables a piece to carry on."

Another project, church pews from Our Lady Star of the Sea located in Howick, and there was a long way to go with that project. The initial work was unsatisfactory. "We had to recover, to reconstruct the pews to fit the new purpose," Avi says. There were both structural and aesthetic changes required. "The original paint job was a mess," recalls Avi. We had to strip, polish, and stain the pews to look like Kauri. Families sponsored the repair and restoration of the pews since church funds were exhausted on the previous work — the thing was, there were not enough pews for all the families who had wanted to embed their names themselves within the church community.

Commitment to waste minimisation and resource use

"We only look at European Union Standards", notes Avi. "We use high-velocity low-pressure European Union Standard-compliant spray guns which reduce emissions from volatile organic compounds — they're widely revered as the best spray gun for the field", continues Avi.

We have two Dust Extraction Systems and pay extra to recycle collected chemical waste. And the workshop takes the same approach for power tools, with no compromise on efficiency. "Eventually, power consumption reduced," continues Avi. "A few years ago, we shifted to LED lights. We re-use old school books for admin. My kids find it embarrassing, but I don't care." I enquire about the trash since noticing two standard bins out front. "Ten years back, we removed our larger landfill bin. We were recycling more. We're recycling everything we can. Today we have your typical residential waste bin — for our entire workshop with six full-time staff."

Both excited and daunted by the prospect of disrupting the status quo, Adam and Cinthya admit to investing hours of research, committed to working towards reducing resource use and waste. Currently, fabric offcuts are thrown out, and foam — we cannot recycle these, and the companies won't take back these materials. "We knew we could go further and are very close to having a byproduct that will come full circle," adds Adam. "We're also utilising wood offcuts; boards are kept for future projects," notes Avi. Belt sanders are recycled, but for sandpaper at this stage, that [recycling] is not possible. "We use sheets until they cannot sand anymore," notes Adam. "Our biggest problem is with waste sawdust, which has to go to the dump — we're still searching for solutions”, adds Avi.

The pandemic and shifting attitudes

Speaking with Avi, there is a clear sentiment that demand for restoration and repair services hasn’t faltered since the pandemic hit. “It [the pandemic] entirely changed people’s attitudes with respect to how they want to live and spend their dollar,” says Avi. That February through May, interest spiked as people were more anchored to their homes and available to evaluate their spaces. “People are becoming more responsible with their purchases, gravitating toward spending locally and supporting New Zealand made,” add Avi. “Yes, we do fix furniture, glue chairs. However, it is not because it is broken and needs to be fixed. It’s also healthy. “People are reflecting internally, very interested in their home ecosystem.” What we see now is at the intersection of environmental recycling decisions and wellbeing.” “Your home can help support your mental wellness,” adds Avi.

How can we shift existing systems, make them circular, more responsible? The production of fast furniture is incredibly draining and demanding on the environment. It is an inconvenient truth that this type of product and access is not sustainable. Keeping materials in use, and considering the end of life, ideally at product inception, designing that the end of life is actually a new beginning for another; either recycling, upcycling or at least downcycling. Better design, better materials and craftsmanship are all vital to creating circular systems. Big retail's promise of initiatives assessing design processes and production methods or take-back programs will not significantly alleviate current issues or reform industry. With their existing business model, everything is optimised to cut cost in all aspects, from design to labour.

It [mass produced furniture] doesn’t hold much value, if any. And what was once piled on footpaths annually for council collection is now either tossed to the streets, or collected for landfill. “It was a shame that Auckland Council discontinued the inorganic collection” notes Avi who had rescued countless pieces from the sidewalks.

Instagram has become a massive discovery engine for all of our lives. Much of our taste and interior aspirations have been to varying degrees informed by scrolling through various accounts. However, often when you look at a feed, it’s homogenous. So I am thinking about representation, and Avi notes the breadth of those who enquire and spend — there is no type. The workshop also has partnerships with retailers to provide in-house product stewardship services designed to care for their products after sale. Notable clients include the Auckland and Waitemata District Health Boards, Chlöe Swarbrick's Auckland Central office, the Nourish Group's restaurants, and multiple churches in Auckland. Tides are shifting. “Many of these clients are corporate, so there is hope” Avi notes. Visit the Dovetail Restorations Ltd website to learn more about their refurbishment and repair services. And yes, you can send them those images of Trade Me auctions you have saved to your camera roll.

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